More Than Night Fever . . .

1. Having written about Robin Gibb and his terminal illness a little while back, I wasn’t surprised to hear of his passing last week. I was, however, surprised at how shallow many of the obituaries I read of him were, with many of them focusing on the Bee Gees’ disco era hits, “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever,” neither of which showcased Robin in any capacity beyond harmony vocals. But years before those songs came out, Robin was one of the primary songwriters, and the primary singer of the band, and they had loads of hits in those days, which should have been cited by the media when they covered his passing. So to rectify this inadequate coverage, here are five utterly fantastic early Robin Gibb performances that demonstrate his true vocal talents far better than the Saturday Night Fever-era hits do, as he really deserves better than to be remembered as nothing more than a disco icon:

2. In addition to Robin Gibb, and Donna Summer, and Donald “Duck” Dunn, the musical world also lost another heroic figure this month, though his influence was felt in wider circles than his name was known. Chuck Brown, who passed away on May 16, was the Godfather of Go-Go, and a hugely important musical figure in Washington, DC, around which I spent most of the 1980s. Along with his band, The Soul Searchers, Chuck offered a funky stew of R&B and soul atop long, killer, percussion-heavy rhythmic tracks, with loads of skritchy guitar and call-and-response vocals, guaranteed to make you move and sweat, so long as you had a pulse. What later bands would create using loops and samples, Chuck and Company created by jamming and grooving, live, for as long as it took to get the job done. His music has been widely sampled and appropriated over the years, though outside of Washington, he’s never gotten the name-recognition and love that he deserved. Here’s one of the his best and most famoue early songs, “Bustin’ Loose,” which was originally released in 1978, and shows the prescience of his musical vision. And here’s a later, live clip, which shows the rhythmic behemoth that Go-Go grew into over the years, recorded at Version II of Washington DC’s 930 Club, which aure looks a whole lot nicer and cleaner than Version I at 930 F Street, where I used to hang out in the 1980s:

Strictly Genteel

1. I have written before about the Loneliness of the Long Distance Royals Fan, so after 18 years of being the only Kansas City Royals follower in the state of New York, it seemed that one of the benefits of moving to Iowa might be living in a part of the country where folks might conceptually like the same baseball team I do, since it’s the closest major league franchise to Des Moines. This sense of possibly being able to connect with others was heightened during Spring Training this year, when the Beloved Royals inspired a good number of sports writers to opine that 2012 might be the year that they would finally arise from the American League basement. There was hope! And maybe someone to share my enthusiasm with! Huttah! Three weeks into the regular season, however, these optimistic thoughts have been thoroughly dashed, as the Royals sit at a Major League worst record of 3-13 (.188), after a twelve game losing streak. Oh well . . . at least I have extensive experience in how to handle the Royals’ failure in solitude, which is helpful, since it appears that Iowans don’t care much more about them than New Yorkers do. Sigh.

2. I lived in the Washington, DC suburbs in 1974 when the Washington Capitals hockey club took to the ice the first time. They were one of the southernmost National Hockey League (NHL) teams in the nation at that stage, and there wasn’t a whole lot of pent-up anticipation and interest in the sport as best I could see. But the marketeers of the day did a good job whipping up enthusiasm, and they captured my attention and held it, so the Caps have been the one and only professional hockey team for which I’ve ever held a manly sports crush. Which, for the record, has been even more futile than my aforementioned life-long love of the Kansas City Royals, as the Caps have zero Stanley Cups in their history, compared to the Royals’ one World Series title (now almost 30 years old). Over the past few seasons, the Caps have been particularly aggravating, racking up record-setting regular season records, then folding up like tacos when the postseason arrives. This year, they had a fairly marginal regular season, and I was actually rooting for the Winnipeg Jets to pass them for the last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, since missing the playoffs might actually force management to disassemble the skilled, but generally heartless and gutless teams that the Capitals have put on the ice for the past half decade or so. Unfortunately (?), the Caps made the post-season, and now they are within a game of knocking off the defending Stanley Cup holding Boston Bruins. They will probably go on to win the Cup this year, just to aggravate me. I do not intend to notice, unless they win the whole shooting match, in which case I will claim to have loved them all along, through thick, thin and thoroughtly gutless.

3. The new Jack White solo album, Blunderbuss, is superb. I resisted his most well-known band, White Stripes, for many years, because I disliked their whole schtick of no-bass, drum-and-guitar bashing about, played by a divorced couple who pretended to be siblings. Jack was clearly a world-class talent, sure, but drummer/partner Meg was not, and it was just uncomfortable to watch her play the same couple of patterns over and over again. I always felt bad that she had to play so many high-profile gigs with so few chops after the group broke huge, and it didn’t surprise me that she had a breakdown after a few years of that. So I was relieved when she stepped aside, and I hope that she is happy and healthy in her post-rock band life today. She deserves that. I have enjoyed Jack’s other band gigs with Raconteurs and Dead Weather (especially the latter), but was excited to finally hear what he might do on a disc released under his name. My excitement was rewarded with Blunderbuss, which stacks up great song after great song, many of them arranged for keyboards rather than guitar. While it seems weird to say this, the album that this new disc most clearly evokes for me is the Grateful Dead’s masterpiece American Beauty, which merged great folk and blues songs/arrangements with stellar instrumental performances and weedy, but compelling, vocal tricks. While Jack White doesn’t really sound like Jerry Garcia, exactly, his singing voice does crack and wobble the same ways that Jerry’s did, and when you mix that tenor/treble warble with fantastic lead guitar or keyboard lines, magic happens.

4. It occurs to me that I should explain the title of this post, since the stats page tells me that there are a lot of Indie Moines readers who might not have read Indie Albany before it. During my years of blogging at my own website and at a commercial site where I wrote, I often titled omnibus posts (like this one, covering multiple topics) with the title “Odds and Sods,” riffing off the classic Who compilation album of the same name. When I realized that I was over-using this title cliche, I started titling omnibus posts with the names of other Who songs, until that got old, and I went through a phase of titling such posts with Bee Gees song titles. Then that, too, got old, so I started titled omnibus posts with Emerson, Lake and Palmer song titles. Until (yes, you guessed it) that got old, too, so I started using Frank Zappa song titles, including the title to the post you are reading right now. So for newer readers, there is method to my madness, even if there is madness to my method . . .

I Like the Bee Gees

May 20, 2012 Update: Very sorry to hear of Robin’s passing today. Off to listen to “I Started A Joke” now. 

I am not ashamed to admit that I like the Bee Gees. A lot. And because of my affection for the group’s music, I was saddened to hear of Robin Gibb’s failing medical condition this week, just as his Titanic Requiem was being unveiled. Robin’s chin-quivering vibrato, earnest delivery, over-the-top lyrical and songwriting style, and charming penchant of singing with a finger stuck in one ear made him a truly delightful and unique stage presence. Check out this sublime live version of “I Started A Joke” if you don’t know what I’m talking about. He was a singer’s singer in his heyday, and an electrifying performer, in his own eccentric way.

I will admit that I rarely listen to the Bee Gees’ disco-era blockbuster albums Spirits Having Flown, Children of the World or Saturday Night Fever, since those discs really are relics of their time, and have not aged well. I’ll dance to them if I’m out a club and enjoy their songs in that context, but that’s about it. And after the hysteria that accompanied those albums, it seemed that the ensuing flame-out that accompanied the Bee Gees’ ill-conceived Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film permanently knocked Robin, Maurice and Barry off their stride, and I don’t think they ever made a truly, consistently great record after their pop supernova imploded. Which is sad, since the bile and abuse heaped upon them when disco died was truly unfair and undeserved.

My favorite Bee Gees album.

All that being said, the 13 studio albums that the Brothers Gibb issued before their disco trilogy still make for very enjoyable, very rewarding, and very high-quality listening, for the most part, and they play often in our household, since all three of us enjoy them. The Bee Gees were once performing prodigies with great taste, covering the Beatles on television before Beatlemania had really reached their own antipodean corner of the planet. If you haven’t seen them singing “Please, Please Me” in 1963, then you need to. The 1976 Bee Gees Gold compilation album provides a good summary of most of their hits (in America, or elsewhere) between their precocious Australian era and the disco trilogy, but it doesn’t do justice to the depth of their distinctive catalog through those years. All their albums from that period deserve a hearing, even 1970’s Cucumber Castle, recorded without Robin when he briefly quit the group for a solo career.

The Bee Gees albums I listen to the most these days are To Whom It May Concern (1972) and Main Course (1975). The first is something of an obscurity in the U.S. at this point, since it only spawned one semi-hit (“Run to Me”), but it really is an important disc in their canon, as it marks the last record they made with Bill Shepherd, their producer since 1967, and has often been cited by the Brothers Gibb and critics alike as a farewell to the old Bee Gees sound. It offers an incredibly wide range of song styles and moods, and the material is exceptionally strong and well performed. Closing track “Sweet Song of Summer” is one of the weirdest things in their catalog, a nearly tribal/ambient chant with a fabulous Moog solo by Maurice. Highly recommended.

Main Course was the last album before the Bee Gees’ disco trilogy, and it features three hit songs (“Jive Talkin’.” “Fanny Be Tender With My Love” and “Nights on Broadway”) that casual after-the-fact listeners might assume came from the Saturday Night Fever era. But this disc managed to integrate the Bee Gees’ earlier vocal and songwriting styles into a sleek American R&B format without crossing the line into precious disco period cheese, and it remains a high-water mark in the group’s catalog. It’s a pity that this album often gets tarred with the same brush that so easily paints the records that followed it. Check out this live clip of “Nights on Broadway” to see what a great band these guys were at that point in their career, with Maurice on bass and Barry on guitar. It’s masterful, truly, and it’s interesting to see that the high-end vocal parts were being handled by Maurice, just before Barry’s falsetto became the quintessential hallmark of the disco-era Bee Gees sound. I also think that this song should be taught in music theory classes, as the prolonged “I will wait, even if it takes forever/a lifetime” bridge is such a dynamite tension-builder, a perfectly counter-intuitive example of exactly how to kick a song into a higher gear by slowing it down for a spell. Brilliant!

So I’m going to queue those two albums up on the iPod tonight, as wild plains weather roars outside here in Iowa, and think good and kind thoughts about Robin Gibb. I wish him a full recovery, but if that is not to be, then I also hope that when his time comes, he flies away peacefully and painlessly in the presence of his loved ones. He made a lot of people happy in his lifetime, me among them, and I’m not really sure that there’s any better legacy for a man to leave behind than that.